Astros’ Discussion: Rating the risks for Jeff Luhnow

When Jeff Luhnow took over as GM of the Houston Astros in December 2011, the organization was in such a lowly state that most of the moves he made were low risk. Fan expectations were that he would continue the actions made under former GM Ed Wade and turn veteran assets into young and controllable assets and prospects. The team had just completed a franchise worst (at the time) 56-106 season and were just starting to crawl off the bottom of the major league heap for minor league systems. Expectations for the major league team were nil, and everyone knew that better performance would be down the line based on the direction they were taking.

Well, 3+ years later, we are certainly down the line, and the expectations are no longer nil. The moves made by Jeff Luhnow in the last calendar year are now being scrutinized on a much shorter calendar scale, and the risks in making them are that much higher. So, this post will list the major, risky moves made by Luhnow since this time last season and rate them from most risky on down.

#1. The 1-1 Draft Fiasco

The Astros took the risky path of spending a first overall draft pick on a high school pitcher. Then after finally doing a medical exam on him they took the bigger risk of low-balling him on their offer and basically ended up losing Brady Aiken and fellow draftee Jacob Nix and eventually an unspecified but large settlement to Nix. Luhnow likely decided he would rather take a shot at the second overall pick this season than being stuck with Aiken who, he believes, will apparently have his arm separate from his body any day now.

Risks. That the Astros FO reputation will worsen, that their ability to sign high schoolers will be hurt, that Aiken and/or Nix will become top-notch players, that Carlos Rodon (who they did not draft 1-1) will be a stud, that the player they draft with the 1-2 this season will be a dud.

#2. The Pitching trade-aways

Going back to the Jordan Lyles trade (which was a little more than a year ago) – the Astros have traded away 4 young pitching prospects, including Lyles, Jarred Cosart, Michael Foltynewicz and Nick Tropeano. Considering the team had been so bereft of high minors pitching talent a few years ago that they had to rush 20-year-old Lyles to the majors, this either showed a lot of confidence in their minor league system or little confidence in players that Ed Wade drafted or acquired.

Risks. That the Astros do not have enough high minors pitching talent if faced with injuries at the major league level, that the pitchers sliding up from the lower minors are lesser pitchers than those given away, that some or all of the pitchers traded will become solid or better major league contributors.

#3. The full of “Bull” pen

The biggest failure of the last two seasons for the Astros has been a terrible bullpen. Luhnow addressed this last off-season by acquiring 3 established relievers, who were not closers (Chad Qualls, Jesse Crain, Matt Albers), which brought some improvement to the closer role (Qualls), but little improvement to the rest of the pen with Crain out all season and Albers out after a cameo appearance. This off-season, Luhnow threw $37 million over 3 seasons at Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek – both very good non-closers. The team needs a reliable bullpen, but Luhnow has taken a big risk by not bringing in an established closer.

Risks. That no one steps into the closer role and therefore the rest of the pen is in flux, that the injury bug hits again, that Neshek and Gregerson melt under the bigger expectations of bigger money.

#4. The hot seat shift

Jeff Luhnow hand-picked Bo Porter to be his first manager choice after living with Brad Mills for a season. Then after a little less than 2 seasons, he sets Bo Porter out at the curb for reasons that seem to have to do with not getting along with the GM.  Luhnow has gone through 2 managers in 3 seasons (not counting the interim Tom Lawless at the end of last season and Tony DeFrancesco at the end of 2012).  At some point Jim Crane has to wonder…

Risks. That Luhnow himself has to be the next in line for the hot seat – perhaps by the end of 2015, if there are any more huge missteps.

Those are 4 top risks for Jeff Luhnow going forward. What do you think of the order of them and would you add any to the list?



42 comments on “Astros’ Discussion: Rating the risks for Jeff Luhnow

  1. The Astros have been a low ball organization since Crane bought. If Luhnow goes at some point, good candidates for the job will take a pass based on the reputation this club has in the business of baseball.

    Our rotation was better nine months ago. And we had more talent in the pipeline than we do today. I hate to see us go backwards.

    One key injury and our bullpen is again a sore spot. We’re not that much better.

    If this club implodes, Luhnow might not last the season.

    Hot seat? Luhnow should be on it. I think this club is less athletic. Slower. Defensively, we’re not real good in left, at short, at first and maybe third too. As already mentioned, our rotation is not as deep as it was last year. The pen, if haunted by any significant injury, lacks depth. And we will have a significant injury. We will strike out in record numbers and maybe even push the envelope in GDP. That’s not Gross Domestic Product. Can we hit enough to overcome our weaknesses in so many other areas?


    • I love your GDP joke daveb.
      Reading your comment I think I am ready to move the trade off of pitching as Luhnow’s #1 risk. That lack of depth could crush this team if the Astros are the next ones to get Darvished.


    • While I agree with you that Luhnow is, somewhat, on the hot seat I disagree that they will not be able to find a quality GM to replace him, if they decide to do so. There are only 30 of these jobs available and if an opportunity opens up there will a long line of quality candidates ready to take the job. Also, the regression of the minor league system has resulted in the improvement of the major league team. That is usually how the process works.


      • I think the point is you may not get who you want for this spot – but you will get someone at least pretty good.


    • Also, if they go with Gattis in LF on a regular basis then I would agree we are worse defensively than last year. However, if Gattis is our primary DH and Marisnick starts then I think, without a doubt, we are a much better defensive team. The OF defense will be one of the best in baseball, assuming it is JFSF in CF, Springer in RF and Rasmus in LF. Advanced metrics show that Valbuena is a slight upgrade from Matty D at 3B.


  2. Dan, I do believe Luhnow has created some thin-ice scenarios. Or perhaps, another way to look at it is that he hasn’t strengthened his hand enough from taking over in that “lowly state” you mention.

    I’m not sure if this is the year that Luhnow will be held accountable, especially if there is some progress. The plan is still to build with younger players and that Astros’ version of the Keystone pipeline is not quite built all the way to Houston yet. If the team implodes, perhaps it’s a different story.

    Has Luhnow gambled? You bet, especially with the trades of young pitching and the acquisition of a high-K team.

    Here’s the one thing he has done that I’ve mentioned before, but we don’t discuss much. He has left himself great flexibility. He has committed only $34 million in 2016 and only $20 million in 2017, so he can craftily fix what’s broken if all the deals (e.g. Gattis, Valbuena, etc.) don’t pan out. Not to mention the other young guns coming up.

    Of course, he’ll need plenty of dollars to spend on arbitration players next year, not to mention anyone (Keuchel? Springer? McHugh?) he may want to tie up longer.

    I actually believe the bullpen could be a strength. Now if four or five guys go down, it could get ugly, but with Fields now stepping up and perhaps another youngster available soon, starters may not be so resistant to giving up the ball in the sixth or seventh.

    I do agree that the pitching trades could come back to bite him and Houston definitely needs to nail the draft this year. With three of the first 37 picks, they could — could — make a haul. I also wouldn’t rule out another trade that brought the Astros another of those sandwich-type picks. Luhnow likes those. Just sayin’.


      • Yep, totally agreed. Honestly, if they make a BIG hit on one of the three, that would be a “win” in the crapshoot that is the MLB draft. Hopefully the other two would also be serviceable long-term as well.


  3. The trades of Lyles, Cosart, Tropeano, and Folty came because those four pitchers were in the system already and none liked the way Luhnow handled the pitchers and Luhnow wanted a different kind of pitcher in the system. I’ve never liked the way he’s handled pitchers in the minors, but Brent Strom is going to save Jeff Luhnow’s ass. I’m sorry about the crudeness but it is exactly how this is playing out. Strom’s job is to take the kind of pitchers Luhnow acquires and make them better. Keuchel is Luhnow’s kind of pitcher: solid mechanics, at least four pitches, ground ball pitcher, low walks and good K/BB ratio and keep your mouth shut.. The ones that don’t fit the profile are going to leave.
    With having to win becoming a priority, Cosart’s trade was so telling. Cosart was a pain in JL’s butt and he himself is the reason he got traded, not what we got in exchange. Cosart was wild, had poor mechanics and a high BB/K ratio and talked.
    Luhnow’s moves with the starters are risky because he really does not have reliable starters in AAA. He’s taking a big risk, but he is more willing to risk failure with his type of pitchers than he is with other’s type of pitchers. Picking up a guy like Straily, who is Jeff’s guy, and then letting Strom remake him is how Luhnow is going to try to do it until the Corpus Christi bunch are ready to make the majors.
    Not signing a closer is risky, but he decided to go for more runs scored and a couple of late inning guys instead of a high-priced closer. That’s his plan and we’ll see how it works. I hated the closers that were made available, but I wanted him to find one. It didn’t happen because of the budget. We’ll see how things work out.


    • It is strange that on one hand Luhnow is so intent on having “his” kind of pitcher, whereas he seems to be schizophrenic on hitters. He keeps drafting guys that strike out less and get on base a lot, while trading for (Gattis/Carter) and signing as FAs (Rasmus) guys who are K-machines. Why is he holding the line on pitchers and all over the place with hitters? Because he can’t get his kind of hitter without putting out big bucks?


  4. I might as well also discuss the Reward side of the Risk/Reward of these moves.
    Reward – side
    #1 – Draft debacle
    Reward – he drafts a college kid 1-2 this season, the kid gets to the majors quickly and Akins ends up maxing out his HMO account every year.
    #2 – Pitching trade-away
    Reward – Guys like Moran, Marisnick, Conger, etc become solid or better mlbs – the pitchers we traded away never develop and our rotation dodges the injury bug until Appel and company are ready to come up and help.
    #3 The bullpen
    Reward – (I think this is the most likely gamble to work out well. Fields takes over as closer and Sipp, Qualls, Neshek and Gregerson hold the line until the 9th.
    #4 The hot seat
    Reward – Enough of Luhnow’s risks work out – his improved bullpen and more powerful batters help the team get to above .500 and the hot seat starts cooling off.


  5. Just read where former Astros GM, Al Rosen died. He took over when McMullen got rid of Tal Smith (back when we wanted Tal in the front office) just after we finally made the playoffs. The Astros were pretty middle of the road when he was GM, but he did bring in guys who were important to the 1986 playoff run.


    • Yes Dan, I recall when he was hired by John McMullen to run the club and I thought, what is going on here?

      I knew Rosen from his playing days but he had been out of baseball for a couple of decades and had only been back in baseball for a season (78-79) for the NYY (SPIT!!) and he booted Tal Smith off of the front office team. The Astros had just had that magical 1980 season and things looked bright for us. A team, built by Tal, that was well-suited for the Astrodome, lots of speed, defense, and spray hitters.

      For those who do not know who Al Rosen was, as a player for the Cleveland Indians, he drove in 100 or more runs five consecutive years, was a four-time All-Star, twice led the league in home runs and twice in RBIs, and was an MVP. Rosen was a .285 career hitter, with 192 home runs and 717 RBIs in 1,044 games. He was selected for the All-Star Game from 1952 to 1955.

      RIP “Hebrew Hammer!!”

      Liked by 1 person

  6. There is another risk that is a bit of a tangent to #1…low balling draft picks, free agents, and players under contract.
    – Appel is his only pick that wasn’t a situation where he was signing below what the other potential choices at 1.1 wanted…and that may only be because Luhnow passed on him in the first year.
    – Vogulsong debacle
    – Marwin Gonzalez isn’t even worth 1/8 of Jed Lowrie in Luhnow’s eyes
    – Matt Dominguez and Robbie Grossman turned down long term offers?
    – How Springer was handled.
    – etc.


    • I don’t know that trying to sign guys a little lower is bad but if the players see them as only wanting to go way below that is another thing.
      The Neshek and Gregerson signings seemed right in the ballpark as did Lowrie. We shall see how it unfolds over time.


  7. I missed the introduction because I was out-of-town on business. So, let me address that first.

    Alan from Houston.
    I have always been a fan of Houston teams, and I played baseball ( when I was young)
    Reading about a year, first comment.
    Puhl – Astro Buddy and I thought it was funny that he was Canadian.
    1980 Extra game vs. Dodgers.

    Risks : #3, #2, #1, #4

    My biggest perceived risk is that the targeted acquisitions (Conger, Gattis, Moran) and to a lesser extent other acquisitions (like #3 – bullpen acquisitions) do not perform or fit as expected.

    Crane strikes me as a result oriented person, and if the team, as assembled, reaches the 80-82 win mark then I think the F.O. continues. If not, there could
    certainly be changes; however, I think those changes would be based on failing to reach the win target rather than a specific component of that failure.

    OTOH, the F.O. could certainly surprise us all yet again.


    • Thanks for joining us Alan – nice takes there. I liked Puhl too – that is a blast name from the past.
      I agree they need to get in the neighborhood of .500 to not be in the hot seat.


  8. Brett Phillips was the Astros minor league player of the year last year. Hinch put him in to play the outfield, and he hit a long homerun, in the 9th. inning. Hinch tells the guys if you hit a homerun one day, you will be in the lineup the next day!! I know
    Brett is floating on cloud nine!!


      • Yep, I recall Porter giving players a day or two off as a “reward” for hitting a homerun or starting a hitting streak. It seemed, to me, as if he was saying “good job” when what he really meant was “how dare you hit a homerun for us to win the game! I’ll show you that you cannot upstage me!”


      • Devin
        This is asking for more research than I am willing to do right now – but I’m pretty sure it happened.


      • Aauugghh… Dan, you missed my tongue in cheek reference to the venerable question here often…”What he said and what he really meant.”


    • Well Sarge – daveb has this happen occasionally nad he becomes uncleknuckle. Not sure why – maybe you were using a different device to get in?


  9. I think the biggest risk is “The Plan” turns out to be the Emperor’s New Clothes. When JL took over, the top 10 prospects were: Cosart, Singleton, Villar, Folty, Paul Clemens, DeShields, Tanner Bushue, Ober, Wates, Santana. None of which he drafted or traded to get. We can add Peacock, & Carter off the A’s list and some others as prospects. But we are now 3 years and counting. It would appear that if he can field a .500 club – the conscientious is most will be happy. That is a bar set pretty low. We still have 10 top prospects. Perhaps better that what could have been expected from the 2011 list. But if the measuring rod is “winning” – he has a way to go.


      • Me either Dave. I want a rapid return to those days of the late 90s and early 00s where the club was in the playoffs every year or contending anyways.


    • I did not mind them building up the minors for the long run first, but I feel like he has been trading away pitching (young and under control) and not getting enough back for it. Based on where they were in 2013 (51-111) 30 games better in 2 seasons is a reasonable task. But I am thirsty for more and if they are doing good at the trading deadline, I want to see Luhnow and Crane be buyers not sellers. (But not trading away more pitching prospects please).


  10. Luhnow has lost my respect as a team builder. A “true” leader can take another’s players and mold the team to take advantage of those players and the ones that he drafts himself. This bit of moving players out of the system because he did not draft them is selfishness indeed.

    As a famous philosopher stated in the 80s, as he peered out from underneath his 10 gallon cowboy hat “he can take hissen and beat yourin, then take yourin and beat hissen.”

    Luhnow would do well to take that advise.


  11. I think Jose Altuve has a better chance of hitting .341 again than he does .300. Why? because if you look at his professional career he is that kind of hitter and as a 25 year old, he is entering his prime. I think if he steals 40 bases he will be doing well, because of the lineup he is in this year versus last year. He won’t need to steal as many bases as last year.
    I will not be surprised if Springer hits 40 HRs this year. He has not been prone to injury in his career and he learned his lessons last season.
    I will be very surprised if either Marisnick or Grossman doesn’t have a good year. At least one of them is due to break out.
    I will be surprised if Lowrie doesn’t get some talk as an All-Star this season. Why? The shifts will shield his range and the lineup will help carry him. I think he will top his career high in HRs
    I will be surprised if Valbuena doesn’t have a career year at the plate.
    If Singleton hits .235 this year, the Astros will be one of the best hitting teams in baseball.
    I think Mark Appel would have a better record pitching every fifth day in the majors this season, than pitching in a tandem in AAA Fresno. If they would treat him like a man and stop pussyfooting around with him, he would step up. He pitches better when he is just another guy, so he can just let it flow. When he starts thinking instead of pitching, he’s done. I would hand him the ball every fifth day and tell him I expect eight innings out of him. He is that kind of pitcher, with that kind of body, that kind of delivery that kind of arm, that kind of stuff. Turn him over to Hinch, Strom, Castro and let him pitch.
    I think the Astros are another #3 starter, and a full time closer away from being a playoff contender and I think Appel is that #3 starter. I think Fields could be that closer.


    • This is a pretty optimistic comment op. I would love them to say the heck with the “Plan” and give Appel the shot at the rotation.


  12. Wojo may have wally pipped Peacock today! If Brad Peacock isn’t careful, he
    might start the season in Fresno. Phillips didn’t get another chance today…..he was busy on the MIL field. Too bad, I think he would have LOVED to face Sherzer!


  13. DANG……I thought last year was bad, but so far I’ve counted 6-7 pitchers going down with Tommy John surgery so far this spring! You have to wonder if the off season does something to these guys.


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